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New Australian PM re-lived Death March!
Published on: Sunday, August 26, 2018

Kota Kinabalu: Sabah's Australian connection is bound to get more meaningful now that Scott Morrison has become its new Prime Minister.

He is the only Australian PM to have personally retraced a major part of the route that some of the 2,500-odd Allied troops comprising Australian and British, among others, were forced to take by their Japanese captors and which resulted in the deaths of all but six of them in the closing stages of World War Two in what has been called the Death March.

Some of the survivors were murdered and it is said that for every 15 PoWs that died, the Japanese also lost 10 of their own.

It is one of the war's most horrific stories and was slated to be a major Hollywood movie starring Hugh Jackson, but for some reason is not in the Malaysian history books. There were actually three marches in all with troops broken into batches. Some of their remains were recovered after the war and buried in Labuan.

To have an idea of the hell that the Prisoners of War went through, Scott decided to complete the track all the way from Telupid to Ranau, covering some 100km of leech-infested jungle and crossing waist-deep rivers.

"I feel very proud and honoured that a humble and friendly person has suddenly become the Prime Minister of Australia," said Tham Yau Kong who personally guided Morrison and two fellow politicians, then Defence Minister Jason Clare and Independent Rob Oakeshott in the six-day walk from Telupid to the Last Camp Site in Ranau together with Lynette Silver, husband Neil Silver and a group of 20 Australian students, in April 2011.

Oakeshott's grandfather was executed two weeks after Japan's surrender.

"At that time, Morrison's Liberal Party was in the Opposition and Labor was in power,' Tham said.

Morrison, Clare and Oakeshott did everything to re-enact the Death March experience of their fallen Australian PoWs, specifically the infamous rice-carrying party.

"They asked for five 10kg bags of rice and carried that in turn from Nabutan to Nalapak and to Muruk about 20km apart and distributed the rice to some poor locals afterwards," Tham recalled.

"I remember calling him 'Sir' and he stopped me, saying 'Don't call me Sir, just call my name'.

I was shocked because forgetting to call someone a Datuk in Sabah can sometimes invite trouble," said Tham.

Morrison and friends bought a 12-day package which started in Sandakan and ended in Labuan, said Tham who said he heard the breaking news (Scott becoming PM) in Telupid during a morning briefing on Thursday from a lady named Malemie Stone, who is part of a four-member group doing a similar Death March trek at the moment. Asked how would this help in telling the Death March story to the world, Tham said:

"We hope the Malaysian authorities and especially the Sabah State Government would recognise this tragic episode in World War 2 history.

"Don't forget this because it is not only an Australian and British history but part of Sabah's history.

"If every tourism Minister focus on their own constituencies, I am very afraid the Death March tracks which we spent years of effort to relocate and eventually marked would soon be forgotten and lost to the jungle," Tham said.

Matta (Malaysian Tourism Association) President Tan Kok Liang acknowledged that there has been an increasing interest lately by foreign tourists in experiencing Sabah's Death March route, which has been overlooked.

"At the moment only very experienced guides are handling this but it will become a hit should the authorities get into the act by marking the route, complete with facilities for tourists who wish to take their time to relive it while enjoying the jungle fauna and flora.

"It has all the potential of becoming a major tourism product with locals living along the route also benefitting through homestays," he said. - Kan Yaw Chong

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